A British foreign policy? Forget it

Richard Gott listens for what the parties have to say on international affairs - and finds silence
In the small print of the election campaign few people seem to have noticed that the major parties advocate the abolition of the Foreign Office. That, at least, is the conclusion one must draw from the almost total absence at the hustings of any discussion about foreign affairs. Politicians obviously think it would be just as well if the Foreign Office were not there, and doubtless a lot of money could be saved by getting rid of it.

The Conservative position is clear. Mrs Thatcher never liked or trusted the institution, and indeed tried to set up one of her own. The detailed investigations contained in the Scott Report did little to improve its reputation - except for duplicity, opacity, and being economical with the truth.

Labour, never one to step out of line, presumably shares this view, with the added bonus that if there was no Foreign Office there would be no job for Robin Cook. With no Cold War, no obvious foreign enemy, and an apathetic electorate, why bother to have a Foreign Office at all? Why not take a leaf out of the book of the former Soviet foreign minister, Leon Trotsky, who said he would make a few declarations and then shut up shop.

Of course, for all we know, both parties may plan to maintain a residual foreign service, perhaps as a department within the Home Office. This could serve to cope with British subjects caught up in the nets of foreign justice - football hooligans, lager louts, and drug carriers. But from the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it now looks as though the whole panoply of embassies and ambassadors is likely to be junked, whichever party wins the election. In the realm of foreign affairs, only the future of the Royal Yacht remains a contentious party-political issue

As every history student is almost certainly well aware, no election has been fought on a foreign policy issue since 1857. In a forgotten and unnecessary election, Lord Palmerston roundly defeated the radical enthusiasts of the Manchester School, Richard Cobden and John Bright. They had foolishly argued that it would be an error to have another war with China. There have never been any British votes in standing up for Johnny Foreigner. That is the accepted wisdom, and so things have remained ever since. In the current campaign, there is of course an endless diet of mealy-mouthed words about Europe, which would need the army of unemployed kremlinologists to decipher. But about the great outside world beyond, the politicians and their spin doctors are keeping mum.

Look at the current headlines. Do we support President Mobutu or Laurent Kabila? Silence. Where do we stand on the use of British mercenaries in Papua New Guinea? Deathly hush. Do we go along with Islamic democracy in Turkey, or would we prefer a secular military coup? Search me, guv. Would we like to see more Israeli settlements on the West Bank, or fewer? No idea. Do we want to terrify the Russians by extending the frontiers of Nato further to the east? Too complicated. Will we still need to be nice to the Chinese when we have finally cut loose the albatross of Hong Kong? Never given it a thought. Should we be friends or enemies with our nearest neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, when the peace process is finally admitted to have ground to a halt? Don't know. And when attention focuses on Albania, might we not discuss whether we are in favour of the Tosks or the Ghegs? And answer came there none.

During the entire campaign we shall hear nothing of these issues. Yet they will not go away just because no one is looking. History also tells us that a newly elected prime minister, once in government, soon finds much of his or her time caught up in the minutiae of foreign affairs - for better or sometimes for worse. Neville Chamberlain was a splendid minister of health, yet he is remembered for his inexperience in the world of foreign policy. His aide de camp, Sir Horace Wilson, was a brilliant labour negotiator, but rather less skilled when it came to European diplomacy.

Mrs Thatcher was also caught up in subjects that were not within her existing sphere of expertise. With her heart set on mundane local business like dismantling the power of the unions or reorganising education, she found herself strutting on the world stage almost by accident - stiffening Western resistance in the Gulf, frightening the Russians, and fighting a small war in the Falklands.

So it will be if Tony Blair were to become prime minister. However much he has pledged to pay attention to things at home, he will, within weeks of taking office, be seized of the importance of the outside world. He will be seen jetting off to great international gatherings in Amsterdam and Madrid, and hosting important meetings with foreign leaders at home. These will not be cosy parochial encounters discussing hygiene in the beef industry or the price of Brussels sprouts, they will be serious negotiations about foreign affairs, attempting to put what was once proudly thought of as "an independent foreign policy" into a larger international pool, arguing with people who are supposed to be friends and allies about the attitude of Europe and Nato to the problems of the world beyond.

That is the dimension that is missing from all election debate. What, in the formation of Europe's foreign policy, will be the arguments of Britain? Missing too is any discussion about the future of tried and tested warhorses like the United Nations and the Commonwealth, institutions that were largely ignored and distrusted in the Conservative era. Has our interest withered forever?

Maybe, although no one dares to talk about such things, there should still be an argument about the future of the Foreign Office itself. What exactly are all those toffee-nosed diplomats really there for? And just how good are they at what they perceive to be their job? To a disinterested observer it might seem that the Foreign Office now only exists to disguise and cover up the inexperience of the political class when it comes to handling the problems of the outside world. With the assumed and in effect enforced disinterest of the electorate, it has become natural for politicians to turn to the advice and the alleged expertise of people who still perceive themselves as heirs to an imperial and mandarin tradition. Maybe that compounds the problem. That such questions should be raised during an election campaign is obviously too much to ask.